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Syrian refugees assisted by JRS in Byblos (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)

Beirut, 29 April 2013 - The road to the Lebanese village of Kafar Zabad is narrow, with potholes and deep puddles every couple of metres. Once a sleepy village in the Bekaa valley, close to the Syrian border, Kafar Zabad is now home to 150 Syrian families who have fled violence in their country.

At the last petrol station before the village, a boy flags us down, requesting a ride. As he jumps into the car he introduces himself as Abdulhakim from Syria and chats freely to us. Abdulhakim says he is 15 years old – he looks much younger – and that he lives in Kafar Zabad, in his cousin's house. "My parents are still in Syria. We own a farm on the outskirts of Damascus. One day I was outside, and a shell fell no more than 50m away from me. The only reason I wasn't hurt is because everything went flying over my head. I decided there and then that I couldn't live like that anymore. So I left, with my older brother, and we came to Lebanon."

As the Syrian conflict drags on, Bekaa valley has become home to tens of thousands of refugees. Estimates reckon that, by May 2013, up to 500,000 Syrian refugees will have gone to Lebanon, no less than 12.5% of Lebanon's population. 

Although plenty of NGOs in Lebanon work with Syrian refugees, they are not evident in areas deemed to be unsafe, like Kafar Zabad. Late last year, JRS assessed the need in different places in Beirut and the Bekaa valley and chose to focus on locations where Syrians were receiving practically no assistance at all. 

In November 2012, when JRS conducted an assessment in Kafar Zabad, there were about 30 Syrian families in the village; by February there were 150. JRS started working in Kafar Zabad, in Beirut and in the popular tourist destination of Jbeil – the famed ancient city of Byblos – where some 200 Syrian families have been identified as needing support. 

A JRS team, consisting mainly of Syrians who are living in Lebanon as refugees, distributes emergency supplies and goes on home visits. Sally is the coordinator for JRS in Kafar Zabad. She keeps track of new families, assesses their needs and distributes supplies such as mattresses, blankets, hygiene kits and food baskets.

Sally had different plans. When she fled Damascus with her mother and brothers and came to Lebanon, she found her dream job with a regional airline. Then she received a phone call: her work permit had been denied so the airline could not employ her, a common story amongst Syrians seeking work in other Arab countries.

"I had pinned everything on this job. Then I met a Syrian doctor, he told me about Syrian families living here in a desperate situation," says Sally. "I posted something on a Facebook group for Syrians in Lebanon, one thing led to another, and that's how I made contact with JRS." Our young friend Abdulhakim managed to find work in a computer shop, where he earns 80,000 Lebanese lira (just under 40 euro) a week. "Of course I want to go to school," he says, "but there's nothing available. I've heard someone is going to start a school for Syrian refugees in Kafar Zabad, I'd like to go there."

Language prevents most Syrian children from attending school in Lebanon. The Lebanese education system is in French or English, the Syrian in Arabic. JRS started a six-month accelerated learning programme (ALP) in March for 130 Syrian children in Kafar Zabad. Trained Syrian and Lebanese teachers will aim to bring their students up to speed in English, French and Maths so that they may attend Lebanese schools in the new academic year. If successful, the programme will be replicated in other areas. 

Like its counterpart in Syria, the Lebanon team consists of people from different faiths, who want to serve those in need and are drawn by the JRS ethos. Abed Moubayed, assistant project director, came to Lebanon from Aleppo, where he helped to coordinate the initial emergency relief of JRS in 2012. "I continue to work with JRS in Lebanon because it feels like a big family to me, and because there is no discrimination with regards to whom we serve," says Abed. 

When he was forced to leave his country, Abed brought with him not only his invaluable experience but also the inimitable spirit of the JRS team in Syria. He's not the only one: "It's amazing to see that more than half of our core team in Lebanon is connected to Deir Vartan [the JRS centre, now destroyed] in Aleppo. We all worked, volunteered or took a course there. That special spirit of Deir Vartan has stayed with us and is what has reconnected us here in Lebanon."

Zerene Haddad, JRS Middle East communications officer

This article was published in the latest issue of Servir, which you can read here